MINDEN, Nev. (News 4 & Fox 11) — When it comes to the tools available to fight a fire, an Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC) is widely considered the swiss army knife of the firefighting world. They often engage the fire directly using a multitude of skills in the most complex of situations.
The simplest way to break down a Hotshot's nine-to-five is by saying they are the ones that truly get into the thick of it.
Even saying that does not quite capture the grit these men and women go through, because they don't even have a 9-to-5 -- in most cases they are working for days on end during a fire season.
Hotshots sleep wherever they can and whenever they can, because oftentimes they are doing critical work in the most remote areas of a wildfire.
Before we can even get to the flashier part of their season though, the Silver State Hotshots (SSH) have to endure 80 hours of training to get a Red Card -- essentially what qualifies them to operate at a fire the way that they do.
This training brought us to their base, just off US-395 below Carson City, where they start their morning early with a 45-minute run into the foothills of Sierra Nevada.
Then the real work began as they drive their two apparatuses to the Indian Creek Reservoir area -- an area leveled by the 68,636-acre Tamarack Fire last year.
Once they arrive, the SSH members hop out and gear up for a quick briefing by Superintendent Kevin Kelly who lays out the goals and safety measures for the day's training. These 22 members of SSH's 2022 season are mostly experienced with a few first-timers sprinkled in here and there.
After the briefing, we took a swift hike up a road and into the hillside. Certainly not meant for the out of shape as we struggled to keep pace with these men and women -- some of which were sawyers.
These sawyers not only carried their 45-pound pack but also a 25-pound chainsaw as they continued up a hill engulfed by 'widowmaker' trees and charred earth.
Kelly warned the crew of the potential dangers of these fire weakened trees as we began their strategic approach to what Hotshots do best -- create a fuel break in areas that others cannot get to.
Lane Wagner, Acting Assistant Superintendent for SSH, said:
Sawyers are the guys that are cutting all the trees, all the brush, all the fuels that can burn. Their saw team partner is the swamper who moves all the fuel outside of where we will put the line in. Then we have our dig is what we call it -- the scrape -- and we all have hand tools. And we are all in single file and we just move the dirt. You take a couple of hits and keep moving.
"Breaking the fuels slows a fire's progression," added Wagner. The taller the fuel at the sides, the wider the break needs to be and sometimes these breaks can get up to ten miles long, said.
As I said, into the thick of it, this job is a lot of work.
Lead Saw for SSH, Tommy Evers, said, "It definitely takes someone with stamina I would say is the biggest thing. There are days where we are working full 16s and running the saw for 12 to 14 hours a day."
Superintendent Kelly said the job is extremely challenging with the heat and the fatigue you go through.
According to Kelly,
You don't typically find people that just hike straight up a hill. You know they like these nice trails to walk back and forth where we engage, hike, we PT hard and hike up to where we are going to be working and then that's when our work starts.
As we head into the bulk of fire season, the real ongoing challenge is bulking up staffing to meet the ever-growing threat of wildfires, added Superintendent Kelly.
This year's SSH crew had its max of 22 members, but Superintendent Kelly said hiring has not been a cakewalk, "There are a lot of other entities that are sparking up with power companies and firefighters integrating with that, and a lot of our people going into the structure side of things. I have lost a lot of my overhead there."
The SSH crew has been around for 45 years now, each year gaining the needed Red Card and earning the Title 1 designation -- the very top-notch recognition.
Its the leadership, experience, training, equipment, and mobility that gives them that title -- but Superintendent Kelly said what makes the crew relentless is the camaradery:
I keep coming back because of the people. It's not the job itself. It is the personality that comes with it. The training that comes with it. Bringing in new people and seeing them engage and seeing them grow and taking on new challenging fire assignments -- different positions. That is where I get my enjoyment out of it.
Evers has been with SSH for three years now and he said the whole crew is like one big family. He added that this is the drive that keeps you coming back year after year.
All the recent moisture has left the men and women of SSH hopeful for a lighter fire season, but they all agreed only time would tell. In the meantime, they are grinding to be ready wherever and whenever they are needed.